The fundamental maxim of counterinsurgency (COIN) theory holds that the strategic centre of gravity is the populace. And according to the Army’s Counter Insurgency Operations manual, “successful COIN requires [a] comprehensive approach facilitated through a unity of purpose.” For many commanders of Joint Task Force Afghanistan, unity of purpose, let alone agreement on the fact that they were facing an insurgency, was hard to come by in the early years of the multinational, multi-agency coalition. Limited resources compounded the problem.

Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance led the Joint Task Force from February to November 2009, a period that coincided with the arrival of the U.S. Army’s 5th Stryker Brigade, formal commencement of the recommendations of the Manley Panel, and an increase in civilian capability. Aided by those resources, Vance introduced Operation KALAY, a three-stage effort to secure and stabilize the villages around Kandahar. He spoke with editors Robert Beaudoin and Chris Thatcher about the role of the COIN manual and its application in Kandahar.

Did the COIN manual shape what you were able to do in practice?

The manual, like all manuals, provides the principles, intellectual underpinnings and a broad description of the effects that you are trying to bring to bear. But you then have to do the mission analysis with your whole-of-government partners and come up with the techniques – what is actually going to work today. That was the skill of my headquarters: to go from principles and doctrinal underpinnings, and focus on what was going to work in Kandahar. And the answer clearly was district level stabilization achieved through a village level approach.

I think the most important role of the manual was actually its development. By the time it came out, we were familiar with the principles. But like going to school, it’s not necessarily the papers that you produce; it’s the research you do. The manual will go through a review over the next couple of months and will be tweaked over time to incorporate what we’ve learned. You cannot make any document all-inclusive. The more you try and codify, the more constrained you get. Like with the Marine Corps small wars manual, which is brilliant, it provides principles and the intellectual capacity to deal with situations. That will be its real value in the years to come.

How do you inform other government partners of these principles?

The issue of whether we were even in an insurgency was highly contentious. So it would be wrong for the military arm of government to demand that everybody follow its COIN doctrine. What the manual does do is inform others of how the military does COIN. The war fighting aspect of counterinsurgency often is not fighting in the classic sense, and success is only achievable by multiple actors, military and civilian. The military doesn’t do COIN only to be followed by the civilian agencies – you have to do it together. Only then can the civilian community and NGOs have a more permissive environment in which to work. And that is a subtlety that is often lost. It is not the military cracking the whip and saying here is what we are doing.

What is tremendous now is that the civilian cohort preparing to go into theatre is doing exercises like Maple Guardian and Maple Ready in concert with the military. So whether there is a direct transfer of our litany or simply experiencing the environment, we go through a process to understand the principles we want to bring to bear.

As the manual makes clear, you have to have agreement by all parties on the true nature of the mission. Was that consensus in place when you arrived?

I think that had been done extremely well, informed in part by the work of the Manley Panel. We were in a strong position intellectually, but the transition from understanding to empowering everybody takes time. There’s no magic pill. It takes consensus and working together and understanding. As the commander in theatre, you are one of the chief players but you are not alone. The military can’t bully its way around. And it takes a bit of trial and error. In my case it was kind of the perfect nice storm. The component parts of the counterinsurgency strategy were in place, we just needed to wrestle them together. 2009 was the transition year, setting the conditions for BGen Dan Menard and his team to be very productive in 2010.

You have suggested Canada offers one of the most mature and sophisticated approaches to COIN. What is Canada’s edge?

With the Kanadahar mission, we sat at the epicentre of the insurgency long enough that we learned. And in the process of learning, back here in Canada with the production of that manual and through lots of other activities, we solidified our thinking about counterinsurgency – both in general terms and Kandahar-specific. The reason it is a sophisticated approach is because of the nature of our military structure. We have a joint task force headquarters, not just a simple brigade group headquarters. It has a command and control capacity that would rival the divisions of the 1990s. Within the joint task force is an embedded air wing and counter IED capacity with the ability to analyze IED strikes. We are well connected militarily through all of our sensors. And we have, I believe, the most sophisticated soldiers. These are our greatest strategic asset. To them, you add CIDA, DFAIT, RCMP, Correctional Service – a host of bright folks. When we all look at the problem through a similar lens, we more or less come to the same conclusions. We don’t all have the same tactical capabilities but each can enable the others. We also have a team in the embassy in Kabul that helped shape issues for the team in Kandahar, which in turn shaped issues for the Afghan military, the governor and the villages. From top to bottom, it’s as broad a spectrum as possible.

All of these activities have to be synchronized to occur concurrently rather than in sequence. What challenges did that pose?

When we started the village approach, it was characterized by an identifiable political entity with a host of problems, many of which none of us could solve in a short period of time. How do you set priorities? How fast do you do it? Who is in charge? How do you do it so that you don’t take away from Afghan ownership? All of these questions take some fine-tuning. Much of it you can’t foresee and you don’t learn much about a community until you are on the ground. How are families aligned? Then, what capabilities do we actually have? In the Provincial Reconstruction Team, we had a Force Protection Company and Civil-Military Cooperation operators. We put those two together to create two Stability Companies. We had to actually change our structure inside the PRT to create these non-kinetic combat teams. (When that was done, I informed the army which started training the next rotation in that way.)

We had to make some in-theatre adjustments. As you soon discover, that which you programmed a couple of weeks ago might not be the right thing to do, so you’ve got to re-program. And not everyone is agile. It takes an awful lot of hands working to line all of that up and then bring everybody’s capabilities to bear, both in theatre and back at their headquarters in Ottawa. This is not like the world wars where you took kinetic action and then you rebuilt. Now we’re doing it all together. COIN is warfare condensed.

How have the military-NGO dynamics changed? Is there more comfort with this process?

It’s still a process. NGOs cover a wide spectrum of ideologies and capabilities. I think the notion of humanitarian space is largely obsolete, at least in Afghanistan. Many NGOs relied on all parties to the conflict to respect what they do, so their neutrality was their shield. But when one party no longer respects that, capabilities become restricted. So you have a choice: align or don’t work. Many won’t align but some have begun to take advantage of the change in environment that a cohesive counterinsurgency effort can create. In discussions with them, we explained what we were trying to do and the space we were creating. It wasn’t humanitarian space in the classic sense, but it did allow the NGOs to do what they came to do. The head of UN Assistance Mission in Kandahar liked what we were doing and rallied the UN and NGOs to be present once the environment changed.

The perception from Canada is of a constant insurgent threat. Was that the case?

I looked at the problem as: what are the threats to the population? There is the Taliban, the shattered communities themselves, and malign actors. And the watermark behind it all is broken infrastructure and the border with Pakistan. I thought about the insurgency everyday, but I didn’t wake up each morning thinking I was in a blue versus red fight. There was a red piece to take care of, mostly as condition setting – you cannot kill your way out of an insurgency. But there were lots of threats that we did not use combat power to deal with because it would have bled off the main effort.

How evident was the insurgency’s information operations on a daily basis?

It was pretty obvious. In the main, they discredit themselves because they don’t tell the truth. But when you are dealing with the sentiment of a population, it doesn’t take a lot of white noise to create confusion. The Taliban are capable of making themselves larger and scary than life. And they do it through actions – it just takes one dead person at the hands of a shadowy figure in a community like Kandahar and you’ve got that community very scared. That’s an information operation. But the Taliban is a spoiler; they are not trying to build anything. Although it is lost on much of the public, their narrative is not humanitarian. So they can be defeated in the information realm.

Were you able to counter that narrative in a more substantive way than before?

Yes. The population see the work and they see the actions. Once we started to do things differently, it didn’t take too many villages for word to spread. It is almost a whisper campaign among Afghans. And the insurgents have difficulty with it because it’s hard to attack ‘nice.’ You cut your nose off to spite your face when you prevent a road that everyone wants from being built. On that part of the equation, I think we’ve done reasonably well. The same cannot be said for the thoroughness of our communications campaign, because it is difficult to communicate the full breadth and scope. Canadians do support their soldiers, but what the soldiers are doing sometimes gets lost. The concern about the mission surprises me because it hits upon pillars that Canadians have valued for a long time: international effort, part of an alliance, acting for the greater good, and aspirations to make life better for Afghans so that their government can take control and create a better country. That narrative sometimes gets lost in the details of the deaths of soldiers, IED strikes and the deaths of civilians.

Do the senior levels of government understand the requirements of COIN?

Managing warfare demands a great deal of agility and I think we’ve all learned a great deal across government. What happens on the ground is informed by Ottawa, but Ottawa is also informed by what happens on the ground. I’ve witnessed a desire to understand. What do you do when you understand it? Well, that’s another question altogether. And it’s not always easy to do what you think you should be done. You may not have the resources, you may not even have the capability. But I see no policy restraints. There is now a collective will.

If COIN has been a learning process, do the lessons from Afghanistan readily apply elsewhere?

What we’ve learned here will stand us in good stead in future warfare. It’s likely we will deal in failed and failing states that have many of the societal ills that are present in Afghanistan – youth unemployment, poverty, all the things that cause conflict and friction – and there will likely be an armed threat. But the lessons also apply to being able to do the home piece. We’re an integrated organization that works with other government departments at the drop of a hat with no ideological baggage. We can do the Olympics, future ice storms or humanitarian disasters. Look at Haiti. Poof, a joint force headquarters, an ex-commander from Afghanistan able to work in a team environment, able to be the centre from which others can act. The principles remain the same. And I think Afghanistan will solidify that. There is a whole generation of military and civilian leaders who have lived Afghanistan, who understand the horsepower and incredible value our team can bring to bear.

For more on the Comprehensive Approach, Queen’s Centre for International Relations, the Directorate of Land Concepts and Designs, Chief of Force Development, and the Defence and Security Research Institute are hosting a two-day conference April 15-16 at Queen’s University.

The intent is to consolidate numerous research efforts and experiences to produce a more enduring CA concept through discussions on best practices, lessons learned and research. More is available at .


An interview with BGen Jonathan Vance